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Air-Sea Battle (ASB) has become a much-debated Pentagon concept to counter China’s anti-access/area-denial challenge. Yet while allies welcomed America’s military “rebalance” toward Asia, they wonder what it means in concrete terms.
ASB is no exception. Indeed, uncertainties surrounding the concept have led to an image problem even among close allies, such as Australia. It’s time for detailed debate between the US and its allies about what ASB is and isn’t, what it is supposed to achieve, and what role the allies could and want to play.
The uncertainties stem largely from the fact that ASB remains classified. This not only leaves allies wondering what the US expects from them, but its China dimension significantly raises the stakes. While US officials insist that ASB is not country-specific, everyone in Asia knows who is the major potential adversary for US forces.
Bluntly speaking, the US military is planning how to fight a future war with China without fully consulting its allies.
In an allied context, this situation is unfortunate and risky. Unfortunate since ASB has the potential to make a positive contribution to a changing Asia-Pacific strategic environment. It signals to China America’s intention and willingness to project military power into maritime zones increasingly contested by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA).
Any Chinese leader would need to calculate the possibility and nature of a US reaction in response to a major military action designed to change the status quo in the western Pacific. ASB, therefore, could strengthen the credibility of US conventional deterrence in Asia and reassure allies and partners.
Yet ASB’s potential to enhance regional stability is largely lost amid the lack of clarity of what the concept entails and how it links military strategy to broader US political objectives in Asia.
The result is an image problem of ASB as the military element of an emerging US containment strategy vis-à-vis China. Such views certainly do not reflect actual US China policy. But the US needs to better explain how the concept aligns with the US strategic framework for dealing with China’s rise, or allies will perceive a disconnect between US military doctrine and overall strategy.
Washington also needs to more clearly explain ASB to Beijing — the emergence of a military strategy designed to counter China’s growing strength hasn’t gone unnoticed there.
Future high-level talks between Pentagon and PLA officials should particularly focus on the relationship between ASB and nuclear escalation.
US advocates of ASB argue that in the event of conflict, escalation could be kept at the conventional level. That is a dangerous proposition, given that the concept entails deep penetration of Chinese territory to destroy and disrupt PLA command-and-control nodes used for conventional operations.
Beijing might well perceive such attacks as American attempts to disarm China’s nuclear deterrent, and could thus be tempted to nuclear pre-emption.
Put differently, minimizing the risk of nuclear escalation requires a very nuanced understanding on the part of China’s strategic decision-makers that ASB’s conventional response reflects an “escalation ladder” designed to avoid a catastrophic nuclear exchange. Without mutual US-Sino understanding about the need for a new concept of strategic stability, conventional strikes on the Chinese mainland in the context of ASB appear to be a very risky proposition.
It also is risky to assume that ASB is the silver bullet for all Asian allies facing China’s military challenge. It’s not. The concept appears optimized for deterring a high-intensity conventional war between China and the US and its allies in East Asia, extreme cases such as PLA attacks on Taiwan or US bases in Japan. Not surprisingly, Taiwan and Japan, front-line states in the emerging US-Sino strategic competition, are the most supportive of ASB.
However, because it’s a big stick, ASB will probably be far less effective against small-scale Chinese aggression, such as coercive military actions in maritime territorial disputes, where the stakes are small enough to (probably) avoid high levels of escalation. The US is thus still searching for a credible deterrence strategy for such cases.
That’s why Southeast Asian allies are much more ambivalent when it comes to ASB, and the US would be ill-advised to take their participation for granted.
Even close ally Australia does not see the benefit in openly signing up to a concept that so far raises more questions than providing answers to its security problems.
The Pentagon needs to do much more to persuade allies that ASB is the right response to China’s military challenge. A declassified allied version of ASB would be a very good start.